Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 14, 2018
Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilly, eds. Resounding Images: Medieval Intersections of Art, Music, and Sound Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. 451 pp.; 54 color ills.; 201 b/w ills. Hardcover $130.00 (9782503554372)

The editors of Resounding Images: Medieval Intersections of Art, Music, and Sound begin the volume with a brief review of some of the recent literature addressing medieval conjunctions of sound and image. The anthology that follows comprises sixteen case studies, each exploring specific intersections of the acoustic with the visual and the spatial.

Several themes run through these essays. Many of the authors consider architecture in relation to the production and reception of sound, some stressing the selective control or regulation of sound. Silence is a recurrent topic. Others focus on manuscripts as the nexus for images, music, and text. A few point to written lines of text or notation displayed within a variety of visual media, serving as a conduit between the visual and the acoustic. A small number of authors cite written source material recording the impact or effect of sound in certain places; others quote writings that thematize the meanings of music or employ it analogically; still others incorporate anecdotes about sound and music from hagiography. Several contributors describe images of music making, both vocal and instrumental, and discuss their accuracy and purpose. Parallels between art and music, sound and sight appear throughout.

The studies concern vastly different institutional and individual contexts during the Middle Ages and are situated not only in the Latin West but also include Byzantine, Jewish, and Islamic examples. Cross-fertilization through assimilation and resistance is frequently explored.

Matthew Shoaf, in his essay, “The Voice in Relief: Sculpture and Surplus Vocality at the Rise of Naturalism,” uses reliefs on the facade of Orvieto Cathedral to explore the ways in which mute sculpture was seen to speak, pointing out that acoustic discernment with respect to excess or acceptability is relative to the period in which uttered sounds are produced, represented, and received. In their case study, “Performing Silence and Regulating Sound: The Monastic Soundscape of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes,” Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines investigate the specificities of the abbey’s church and claustral buildings against purported normative silence, transgressed by liturgical performance, the sounds of nature, and the regulatory pealing of bells. Elizabeth Valdez del Álamo, in the chapter “Hearing the Image at Santo Domingo de Silos,” examines the ways in which sculptures throughout the monastic complex interacted with the liturgical sounds and performances of the monks who inhabited these shared spaces, suggesting how empathy and memory influenced “synaesthetic responses.” In “The Sound of Conversion in Medieval Iberia,” Tom Nickson analyzes the ways in which sound—real, potential, and imagined—was transformed, appropriated, silenced, or replaced through architectural alterations, liturgy, and audience during the thirteenth century, when the Iberian Muslim populace was conquered and converted to Christianity. In “‘Praiseworthy in that great multitude was the silence’: Sound/Silence in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul,” Nina Ergin presents the economy of sound, its discipline, and its control within precisely articulated spatial hierarchies that reflected and promoted power structures relating to politics, gender, and even species. In “Monastic Soundspaces in Late Byzantium: The Art and Act of Chanting,” Sharon Gerstel examines the placement of figures in wall paintings, many accompanied by lettered texts, in the context of the monks’ performed chants. Similarly, Nancy Ševčenko, in her essay, “Written Voices: The Spoken Word in Middle Byzantine Monumental Painting,” analyzes how voices appeared in painted inscriptions close to the hands of figures who are often exhibiting speech gestures; she observes that by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, texts exhibit liturgical clarity and organization, and notes the prevalence of donors’ inscribed words, meant to be heard in recitation. In “Singing, Crying, Shouting, and Saying: Embroidered Aëres and Epitaphioi and the Sounds of the Byzantine Liturgy,” Henry Schilb demonstrates how embroidered inscriptions aided in the celebration of historical events by perpetuating their reenactments and their eternal meanings. Bearing traces of wax and incense, these textiles remind us that liturgy involved all the senses. Sarit Shalev-Eyni gives an informative explication of her topic in “The Aural-Visual Experience in the Ashkenazi Ritual Domain of the Middle Ages,” speculating that it was perhaps an effort to keep melodies from being appropriated by Christians that in part motivated the lack of musical notation in the sumptuous illuminated codices preserving the complex poetical texts of the piyyutim. In “The Play of Daniel in the Cathedral of Beauvais,” Andrew Tallon reviews the literature about the play, its first known written source, and the architectural history of Beauvais, conjecturing that it was the lesser-known Romanesque building that first provided the ambience for this text in its processional performance. In his chapter, “Building a Church with Music: The Plainchant Capitals at Cluny, c. 1100,” Sébastien Biay reexamines these well-known capitals and proposes that, as the lyre with its unusual stringing may be suggestive of Christ’s body strung out on the cross, so the work of redemption is here put forward as “musical” in that its attitudes inscribe body and soul in measure and rule. In “Sounds and Visions of Heaven: The Fusion of Music and Art in the Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbroeck,” Judith Oliver speculates very intriguingly about the ways in which this famous cantor, scribe, and illuminator designed her manuscript using “eye music” as synesthesia, which Oliver defines as the merging or dissolution of the senses, and which here involves selections of colors and changes in tempi and volume. In their study, “The Desert in Paradise: A Newly-Discovered Office for John the Baptist from Paradies bei Soest and Its Place in the Dominican Liturgy,” Margot E. Fassler and Jeffrey F. Hamburger discuss several fragments of an office that exhibit a dense narrative cycle including highly unusual scenes within historiated initials as well as original chant compositions. Sara Offenberg, author of “Staging the Blindfolded Bride: Between Medieval Drama and Piyyut Illumination in the Levy Mahzor,” posits that an unusual illumination showing the Lord God as the bridegroom and the Knesset Israel as the bride may have been conceived as a direct polemic against works such as the liturgical drama The Play of Antichrist, and may have served to strengthen the Jewish community in its resolve against Christian attempts at conversion. Michael Curschmann’s study, “Integrating Anselm: Pictures and the Liturgy in a Twelfth-Century Manuscript of the ‘Orationes sive Meditationes,’” offers an in-depth investigation of a miniature program that exhibits visual ensembles consisting of seldom-represented scenes replete with speech scrolls. Each scroll contains texts derived from various liturgical sources together with, most remarkably, neumes, which he believes connote the mental intonation of these texts in choral chant, thus transforming the narratives into a virtual performance for the nuns who owned and used the manuscript. In the final essay, “Silent Sounds: Musical Iconography in a Fifteenth-Century Jewish Prayer Book,” Suzanne Wijsman suggests that Asher ben Yitzhaq, the user-producer of the Oppenheimer Siddur, would have sought a heightened internal experience of devotion as musical prayer through the suggestion presented by the images of music-making, an iconography rare in Jewish prayer books.

Several authors point to the difficulty of studying sound and its ephemerality at the distance of many centuries. For example, medieval Latin musical notation was not as prescriptive as later notation. This condition is exacerbated by a dearth of written transcriptions or directions for performance. For Jewish liturgical chant, which relied even more heavily on oral traditions, the durability of information is particularly limited.

A number of writers employ the analytic tools recently developed by anthropologists to interrogate sense perception. Some contributors developed innovative vocabulary. Among these new and borrowed concepts are the following: soundscape, soundmark, sound-images, soundshed, the period ear, the mind’s ear, images of sounds, sounds of images, synesthesia, the dimension of sound, aural memory, and hybrid semiosis.

Although none of the authors address this issue, the book does point up the limitations of discourses that are confined to the verbal and the visual. As new digital technologies are gaining scholarly acceptance and academic credence, it is hoped that especially for the exploration of the sensual, we might expand not only our vocabulary but also our media of expression and means of communication. For the future, new ways of exploring the historical sensorium must be developed and explored, since the entire sensescape is and was indeed very important to cognition and affect. By including these aspects we would greatly enhance our access to medieval cultural experience and facilitate our empathy for various social positions and economies.

The volume is beautifully produced, containing ample illustrative material, including color plates, integrated photographs, architectural plans, and codicological tables. It provides welcome contributions to what is a new focus for medieval studies, one that incorporates the study of the acoustic in tandem with the analysis of the visual, combining the careful expertise of art history and musicology, two disciplines that benefit from long years of critical insights into medieval cultural production. It is hoped that in the future we might expand these efforts to include all the senses.

Corine Schleif
Professor, Art History, Arizona State University